How to fly with kids and stay sane Pt 1

In late October last year we (my wife and our two under 4s) moved from Cape Town, South Africa, via Durban to Glasgow, Scotland.

“What?! You swapped sunny, hot South Africa for cold, wet Glasgow? Are you mad? What were you thinking?”

Yes, I suppose we are a bit mad, but I think that a bit of madness is required if you’re serious about seeing your dreams come true, (and by dreams I mean those huge, ambitious life goals that don’t seem to be rooted in reality, not the ones about talking hot dogs or lobsters answering telephones!).

Shortly after this major life event we were back in S.A. for my sister-in-law’s wedding. So, in the space of 3 months we made two long-haul return flights with two kids under 4.

Each flight was two-legged going via Dubai and each leg was 7-8 hours long. That means, door-to-door, we travelled for about 24 hours straight each time, (that includes getting to the airport, checking in, lay-over in Dubai, getting through immigration and baggage and travel to our final destination). So each flight was a pretty epic undertaking.

Needless to say we picked up a few tips and tricks along the way and with summer holidays fast approaching, now is the time when the big decisions are made: do we choose the safe option and drive somewhere warmish within a few hours’ drive or do we take a risk and fly somewhere genuinely hot in a small metal tube filled with other people?!

We mulled over this question recently and opted for a bargain holiday in Turkey! Yes, the flights are about 5 hours long. Yes, they are at inconvenient times. Yes, it will be more work than (but not actually a lot more money than) simply driving to [Enter UK beach destination of your choice]. We will spend a week in the (genuinely) warm sun, on the beach at an all inclusive resort that includes childcare. It will be immense!

Flying with small humans , even short flights, can be quite daunting, and this is because, for most of us, it’s either a new experience or we’ve only had bad experiences before. If you’re in the first camp then your only memories of kids on planes will be the screaming infant of someone, mainly because nobody remembers the quiet babies, and if you’re in the second camp then I sympathise completely.

No matter what your experience (or lack of it) has been, the tips I share below were earned with  a bit of blood, quite a lot of sweat and fewer tears than you’d imagine, because exotic destinations are not among the places you must kiss goodbye to when you become a parent.

I’ve split the travel tips into a few categories and will spread it out over a couple of posts. Today I’m just going to cover luggage and plane essentials.


The contents – or lack of it – in your hand luggage can make or break a trip.

  • Hand Luggage: I’ve read some tips that recommend using all of the bags you are permitted and packing them full of stuff. I have a slightly different approach: take as few items of hand luggage as possible. Remember that, inevitably, you WILL end up carrying at least one of your children in the airport, and if there’s a significant lay-over or some travel required at the other end you do NOT want to be carrying 3 bags of varying shapes and sizes PLUS a child. A small individual bag (mentioned below) for each child who’s old enough to carry one plus a nappy bag and another bag for the whole family is ideal. This way the most you or your partner are carrying or pulling along on wheels is one item and carrying one small human.
  • Kids’ luggage can work. A little backpack with their toys, a tablet, a bottle for water and snacks is very useful as long as THEY carry it. Another option is a scooter suitcase. They are small, hand-luggage sized suitcases that double as push scooters. Most of them also come with a rope for towing. These are helpful if your child is definitely going to be conscious. If you’re going to have a late night flight and you’re kid is likely to fall asleep in the airport then you WILL end up carrying the child and the cute, bulky, sharp cornered thing.

Plane essentials

I’ve made quite a lot of long-haul flights and have frequently witnessed dead-eyed, hapless parents desperately trying to entertain their wailing progeny with the in-flight magazine, the emergency instructions, the seatbealt, basically anything they could find. Here are a few things you can pack to make sure that you, and your fellow passengers, stay sane during taxi, take-off and landing.

  • A fully charged tablet with multiple episodes of your kid’s favourite shows and games on. Most media apps such as iTunes, Amazon and Google Play have some sort of ‘Watch offline’ option. There are, of course, ways to download shows from Youtube that aren’t 100% above board but work. If you get a bulkhead seat then you won’t be allowed to take out the screen until you’re in the air. So the precious minutes you have screen-less need to be taken up by something else. A tablet is a good – but not the only – option.
  • A fully charged phone with a couple of favourite games for the same reason as  a tablet.
  • A couple of favourite books (small ones)
  • An activity book.
  • A couple of favourite (small) toys. You don’t want more than 4 or 5 of these as they take up space. Ideally you don’t want the noisy ones with the flashing lights…
  • A new toy is great, especially on a long haul flight. Do not underestimate the power of the precious minutes bought by a novel gift.
  • For babies, a dummy/ bottle or breast (your wife’s not yours) to help them ‘pop’ their ears as the altitude increases. Babies need help to relieve the build-up of pressure within the ear canal, and sucking on something, anything, helps. If your older kids have trouble with this you can tell them to hold their nose and then try and blow out through the now-closed nostrils. This makes your ears ‘pop’.

Having kids doesn’t mean the end to your travels and adventures. If you take some steps and plan ahead you can make flights quite bearable. In the second part of this series we’ll look at unavoidables, drugs and research.


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